Monday, August 29, 2011

Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville

Author: Herman Melville
Date: 1850
Setting: a lawyer’s office on Wall Street in the 1850s
Availability: Read Bartleby the Scrivener on line, free

Story: Bartleby is hired as a copyist, a scrivener, for a lawyer. The lawyer (today he would be called a corporate lawyer) tells the story. He describes the curious natures of the two scriveners already in his employ and how one, Turkey, is useful in the mornings, but becomes unorganized and useless in the afternoons. The other, Nippers, is angry and sullen in the mornings, but a reliable worker after lunch. The only other employee is an errand boy, known as Ginger Nut. The lawyer is hoping that a third person might balance out the office chaos and provide a steadying influence.

At first, Bartleby seems to do just this. He works hard, and asks for no favors. His workspace is behind a screen in the owner’s private office. After just three days, the lawyer asks Bartleby to come help compare copies of a document, as this was a necessary, but tiresome task when legal documents had to be copied by hand. Bartleby emerges from his cubicle, but makes the surprising declaration that he “would prefer not to.”

The lawyer decides to let this instance of insubordination go, but the situation gets more and more out of control as Bartleby eventually prefers not to do anything.

Commentary: The tale of Bartleby is told in the first person from the perspective of his employer, a lawyer. It is set in the time period in which it was written, and a great deal of it will seem strange to modern readers, but the interactions between the people are as amusing and annoying as in any office in this century.

The meaning of the story has been debated by literary critics for over 150 years. I don’t think I’m going to be able to add much to those theories. Some think it’s symbolic of Melville's own frustrations as an author, while others think that it is an early rant against the world of corporate finance.

Although Melville’s work was largely forgotten until after the absurdist movement, this story is sometimes credited with being a precursor to that phase of literature.

No matter what Melville had in mind, certainly there are several themes. The most obvious one is “what is charity?” The lawyer (the narrator) continually struggles with his own feelings about Bartleby. He has hired the man to do a job, but soon is not getting any work out of him at all. He continually argues with himself that the man is depressed, incredibly poor, and that it would be inhumane to put him out. The end result is an absurd condition where the employer pays Bartleby to leave, and still the scrivener will not, so the lawyer moves out. And even that is not the end of the story.

The mental deterioration of Bartleby is a constant theme. We see the man degenerate from a sad and quiet, but hardworking fellow to depression and withdrawal so severe that it leads to his demise. The progression of Bartleby’s condition seems inevitable, and raises questions about what can be done for people who refuse to respond to human interaction.

The story, although a tragedy in the end, offers a comic look into the work world of the mid-1800's. Turkey and Nipper are polar opposites, and in some ways the narrator and Bartleby are also two sides of a coin. Yet, they all have to show up at the office every day and churn out page after page of government authorized paperwork which seems totally beside the point of anything important in their lives.

     Author info: Herman Melville 1819-1891 is a familiar author for the immense success of Moby Dick. However, he was never known for Moby Dick in his lifetime. His early novels, Typee and Omoo were highly acclaimed, but then his popularity waned. Moby Dick never sold it’s initial printing of 3000 copies. Melville was long dead before he was rediscovered in the early 20th Century.

He was born in New York City, and had several famous ancestors- one a participant in the Boston Tea Party, another a Revolutionary War General. After some adventuring at sea, and a stint as a surveyor, he began to write. Despite his early acclaim, he was never able to make enough as a writer to support himself.

Unusual Words:
divers- many
imprimis- in the first place
orbicular- round
cannel coal- oil shale which produced a lot of light as it burned
the Tombs- Manhattan Detention Complex- a prison
carman- driver
luny- loony, crazy
wight- a human being
Petra- the lost city of Edom, a symbol of a deserted place
Marius- a reference to a Roman General and a classical painting of Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage
rockaway- a squarish carriage which could be closed up to shield the occupant from view.

Memorable Quote:
I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, Byron, would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 10